Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: My Family and Other Animals



It was fascinating to read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals immediately after finishing Katharine Swift’s The Morville Hours.  I didn’t do that intentionally; both had happened to come in from ILL in rapid succession, and I try to read ILL books before regular campus library books because I only get them for a matter of weeks, rather than for the entire school year.  The similarities between My Family and Other Animals and The Morville Hours were highly surprising but quite delightful, and made for a directed reading experience, because I focused my attention on the parallels.  I suspect if (when!) I read My Family... again, this time following a different book, I’d get something new out of it.

My Family…, like The Morville Hours, is a memoir of sorts, written by someone with a deep love for and knowledge of the outdoors.  Durrell grew up to be a naturalist, and wrote this book looking back on his happy childhood as a boy zoologist living with his mother and three siblings on the Greek island of Corfu.  I spent some time puzzling over the tone – in the book, Gerry is ten years old, but the first-person narrative is not written as if by a ten-year-old.  It’s much more sophisticated and full of a wry humor built upon viewing his childhood activities through an older, more experienced lens.  On the other hand, it isn’t written purely as an old man looking back on his youth.  A lot of the characterization of others is childlike and infinitely delightful – Gerry’s dog, Roger’s constant companion in adventures, is just as much a person as his human family, and Gerry’s conversations with Roger never seem one-sided, even though the dog is not actually granted any literal speech.

Like Swift’s book, My Family… is full to bursting with lush descriptions of nature, though Durrell is much more interested in animals than plants.  Whenever he is not cornered by a tutor, Gerry spends his days wandering the outdoors, fascinated by creatures that most people would either entirely overlook or find distasteful.  For example, he spends pages lovingly describing the scorpions that lived underneath the plaster of a crumbling wall in his backyard.  Whenever he can, Gerry captures the little creatures he studies, and they either become a part of his naturalist collection (displayed in death) or, more entertainingly, part of his family.

Which brings me to what I see as the central question of this book.  What is family?  And, as the title, My Family and Other Animals implies, are all family members animals?  About half of each chapter focuses on Gerry’s outdoor exploits and his wild pets; the other half describes the antics of his mother and siblings.  Gerry’s mom (widowed?) must be independently wealthy, for no one in this family seems to have any real job to do, and yet they live quite comfortably on this island, a clear step above the peasants they make friends with.  Gerry’s siblings are all older and all stereotyped: there’s Larry, the oldest, a would-be novelist who thinks he knows everything and constantly tells his siblings how to better accomplish their own activities; Leslie, a young man whose sole interest seems to be hunting and shooting, with occasional forays into woodworking; and Margot, the typical teenaged girl obsessed with clothing and appearance.  They’re all somewhat nuts and completely hilarious.  These are Gerry’s immediate family, but a few other people of Corfu become practically like family to the Durrells, including Theodore, Gerry’s naturalist friend; Spiro, a merchant who takes care of the Durrells’ affairs; and a whole host of Gerry’s tutors.  And then there are all of the animals.  Many of the episodes about these wild creatures take place inside the Durrells’ home, such as the epic battle between Cicely the mantis and Geronimo the gecko, which takes place on Gerry’s bedroom’s ceiling.  Besides Roger, the Durrells acquire three other dogs over the course of the tale (Widdle and Puke, and Mother’s dog Dodo, the only female); and then there are Achilles the tortoise, Quasimodo the pigeon, Ulysses the owl, the Magenpies (a pair of otherwise unnamed magpies), and Alecko the gull, to name a few.  Though it is never spelled out in the book, as far as Gerry is concerned, these animals are just as much his family members, and just as troublesome.  The interactions between human family and animal family provide some of the most entertaining moments in this very, very funny book.

4 comments:

  1. A couple months ago I read a book by Durrel's wife about their travels and experiences collecting animals for zoos. It was very funny and I definitely thought I'd read more by them later, but your review ups Durrel on my TBR list. Whereas some conservationists stick to a wholly scientific approach to animals, I appreciate the personal and humorous approach of the Durrels.

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    1. I haven't read any of his other books but I imagine he's pretty consistent in style. If you loved another book of his, I bet you'd enjoy this one! I too loved the mix of science and natural observation combined with entertaining stories about his family members and pets.

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  2. I realise I am late for the party, but I just have to leave a comment here.

    You have just, hm, teleported me back to the childhood :) I remember summers with this book (and lots of others too, of course). I don't even know how many times I read it... The copy in our house did not look very sellable, though, from the last look that I remember :)

    I also recall this being one of the few really, really funny books. Especially the chapter with Gerry's little boat (don't know what it is called in English but it had REALLY funny name in my mother tongue, Estonian) - I remember laughing every time when reading :)

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! I'm happy I could facilitate reminiscing about childhood. (I do a lot of that myself!) I don't remember the name of the boat either, but I enjoyed that chapter a great deal too.

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